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Chechen granted UK asylum

Russia accuses Zakayev of terrorism.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Britain has granted political asylum to Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev, who is wanted on murder and kidnapping charges in Russia.

"We can confirm Mr. Zakayev has been granted refugee status," a British Home Office spokesman said Saturday.

Zakayev won his fight against extradition from the UK earlier this month when a magistrates' court judge in London said it would be "unjust and oppressive to return Mr. Zakayev to Russia" because the extradition was politically motivated.

Judge Timothy Workman, giving his ruling in Bow Street Magistrates' Court on November 13, said he believed Zakayev may be tortured in Russia if he was extradited and quoted one witness as saying: "Chechens are almost always tortured.''

Evidence from another witness, who testified that he had been held in a pit for six days and tortured with electric shocks to force him to make a statement against Zakayev, was believable, the judge added.

Zakayev, 43, had been on conditional bail since his arrest at London's Heathrow Airport last December following Russia's extradition request on 13 counts, including charges of murder and kidnapping during the war in the breakaway region.

The Chechen leader was first arrested on October 30, 2002, in Copenhagen at Moscow's request after a legal meeting of rebels and human rights activists -- just days after Chechen gunmen took hundreds hostage in a Moscow theater. During the operation to free them, more than 100 of the hostages died.

Denmark had given Russia until November 30, 2002, to provide sufficient evidence to justify extraditing Zakayev, but Moscow failed to do so.

Britain's Scotland Yard arrested Zakayev when he arrived in London on an extradition warrant that alleged Zakayev was a senior Chechen military commander who had waged war against Russian between October 1995 and December 2000.

Russian officials have said they will seek Zakayev wherever he goes.

A 1996 peace deal left Chechen separatists in charge following a 20-month war, but Russian troops poured back into Chechnya in 1999, after rebel raids in a neighboring region and after a series of apartment-house bombings that killed about 300 people and were blamed on the rebels.

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